Emerson, Poe, and the War on Science

I’ve been accused of being “anti-science” on the podcast, a charge against which I’ve done my best to defend myself. My suspicion, as I say in that second post, is not of science qua science but of science’s attempt to either (a) discover metaphysical truth; or, more often these days, (b) discount metaphysical truth as a legitimate thing. (Richard Dawkins, to recap, actually says in an interview with Salon.com that “why” questions aren’t worth asking; Michael Shermer says that the Self is a mere series of chemical reactions.)

So it’ll come as no surprise that I will suspend my normal stance on Edgar Allan Poe (I don’t like him much at all) for his poem “Sonnet—To Science”:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities!
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Obviously, the poem still applies today; you could easily mail it to Dawkins or Shermer and not have to change anything (and you’d probably want to highlight lines six and seven, which seem particularly directed at militant atheists who cloak their baseline fundamentalism under a veil of objectivity).

The truth, though, is that Poe is operating in a very clear tradition—the writers of the American Renaissance (and the period just before it, since Poe is generally not considered part of that movement) are united in their suspicions of science’s ability to create a coherent worldview, morality, and metaphysic. Think of Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” in which naïve scientism leads to the destruction of the human being; or think of Moby-Dick, which gives us hundreds of pages of cetological detail, which leaves us no closer to understanding the white whale. The writers of the American Renaissance are united in their general Romanticism, which—naturally enough—reacts against the dominant worldview of the previous generation, Enlightenment-style “objective” scientism.

Even Ralph Waldo Emerson—despised by Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville alike—gets in on the act. For example, in his essay “Love” (1841), he suggests that art is something beyond the scope of science altogether, a metaphysical truth: “The statue is then beautiful when it begins to be incomprehensible, and can no longer be defined by compass and measuring-wand, but demands an active imagination to go with it, and to say what it is in the act of doing.” This goes not just for objects of beauty, but objects of ugliness—because Enlightenment scientism is blindly optimistic (man is perfectible, the universe is comprehensible, and we’re probably going to do both next weekend), Emerson make a turn toward the dark (unexpectedly, for anyone unfamiliar with Emerson’s frequent pessimism):

Every thing is beautiful seen from the point of the intellect, or as truth. But all is sour, if seen as experience. Details are melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble. In the actual world—the painful kingdom of time and place—dwell care, and canker, and fear. With thought, with the ideal, is immortal hilarity, the rose of joy.

Here Emerson has set up two paths to truth: the intellect, identified not just with reason but also with idealization; and the imagination, identified with experience, aesthetic appreciation, and inscrutability. This dichotomy basically persists throughout the writings of the American Renaissance. Thus Emerson can claim, in “Each and All,” that the scientific mindset destroys any ability to see things purely:

The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave;
And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me.
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore.
(ll. 19-27)

Emerson’s actions here are the actions of a clichéd scientist—seeing something beautiful or interesting, he picks the scene apart and takes the components back to the laboratory, only to find that his analysis has destroyed what made the elements special to begin with. Poe gets at the same thing in “Sonnet—To Science” when he says that Science “alterest all things with thy peering eyes”; these are basically early versions of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle!

In the end, Emerson’s solution to the problem of analysis is a more or less religious solution—one must submit oneself to the beauty of the oneness of all things: “I yielded myself to the perfect whole” (l. 51), he says, and in this way maintains the beauty of the scene in his own subjective reaction to it. You can’t pick truth apart, and you can’t discover it in a laboratory—it’s an experience. (If this is sounding a lot like Christian existentialism, remember that Kierkegaard was writing at the same time as Emerson and Poe and that he, too, was reacting to Enlightenment scientism.)

But both Emerson and Poe have an attitude that’s more complicated than a simple rejection of science. Early on his career, Emerson was able to claim that “we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy”—a statement absolutely dripping with scientific optimism. The key to interpretation here, though, is the way those answers come: “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put.” So any answers we get are going to come not from the laboratory but from lived experience, from the soul. It is worth noting, too, that the physical truths the scientist can discover are worthless for Emerson unless they lead to higher, spiritual truths.

That brings us back to Poe, who, like Emerson, does not simplistically reject science or its benefits. Indeed, I can think of very few nineteenth-century writers who utilized the sciences and pseudo-sciences of his day as effectively as Poe did—and of course the detective story, which he invented, depends on objective reasoning. Even Poe’s afterlife is couched in scientific terms. As one of the dead people in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” puts it,

Now it was that, in twilight, we discoursed of the days to come, when the Art-scarred surface of the Earth, having undergone that purification which alone should efface its rectangular obscenities, should clothe itself anew in the verdure and mountain-slopes and the smiling waters of Paradise, and be rendered at length a fit dwelling-place for man:—for man the Death-purged—for man to whose now exalted intellect there should be poison in knowledge no more—for the redeemed, regenerated, blissful, and now immortal, but still for the material, man.

The afterlife is physical for Poe; God Himself is physical, in fact, called in “Mesmeric Revelation” “not spirit, for he exists. Nor is he matter, as you understand it. But there are gradations of matter of which man knows nothing; the grosser impelling the finer, the finer pervading the grosser.” So Poe is a sort of materialist mystic—there is no such thing as the non-material world, and yet the world we see around us is not the end of the story because there is a hypothetical and non-testable “finer gradation of matter” all around us, in which God and dead people live. This formulation is bound to make both the scientist and the Christian angry.

Poe’s problem with science, then, as expressed in “Sonnet—To Science” is not that it formulates a wholly material universe—Poe himself does that—but that it assumes that it can get its mind around the materialist universe, a mindset he calls, in “Monos and Una,” “the propensity of man to define the indefinable.” Some things just are and cannot be studied—even if other things can be studied.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t use the indefinable for our materialist and scientific purposes, however. The dominant mode of Poe’s “tales of ratiocination” (the detective stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rouget,” and “The Purloined Letter,” along with more fantastic stories like “The Descent Into the Maelstrom”) is what John T. Irwin calls “scientific intuition”; M. Dupin, for example, acts completely logically in the detective stories in which he features, but he can do so only by taking leaps based on intuition. Poe offers a simultaneously scientific and mystical viewpoint, and if he criticizes the scientist in “Sonnet—To Science,” it’s only for leaving out half of the equation, and he would, I am certain, criticize religious believers for leaving out the other half.

I can’t fully agree with either Poe or Emerson here—I am, as the podcast introduction says, “unapologetically confessional,” and so I can’t accept the vague pantheism of Emerson or the mystical materialism of Poe. But I think they’re hinting at the proper relationship between faith and reason. Without the former, the latter can’t answer the ever-important why questions; without the latter, the former cannot survive in the real world.

3 thoughts on “Emerson, Poe, and the War on Science

  1. I was familiar with the “Spirit-is-yet-finer-Matter” theory, but didn’t know Poe was a proponent of it. This esp. interests me because of a book on the subject, _The Village Enlightenment in America. It outlines the theories of three figures on the borders of science and religion, trying to theorize a union between the two: Orson Pratt (LDS apostle), Phineas Quimby (Mary Baker Eddy’s mind cure doctor), and Robert Hare (inventor and spiritualist). I’m not surprised Poe was interested: this was some of the cutting edge speculative “science” of his day: Mulder enough to be exciting, Scully enough to be comfortingly familiar.

    Here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Village-Enlightenment-America-Religion-Nineteenth/dp/0252068289/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265987585&sr=8-1

    1. That book sounds fascinating, David. I ought to read it when I get a free moment; I am contemplating a paper on this subject, one that could probably eventually be expanded into a book once you drag the other American Renaissance folks into the mix. But I’ve got other papers I’m kicking around first, and I’ve got comps and a dissertation on an unrelated matter…so we’ll see if that ever happens.

      Poe really gets into the subject in his bizarre book-length essay “Eureka.” If you haven’t attempted to read this before, it may be worth your time. I find it utterly incomprehensible, myself, and I actually PREFER Poe’s weird metaphysical stuff to his horror or (God forbid) his “comedy.”

      These comps have been good for me in that I’ve had to read an awful lot of eighteenth and nineteenth-century material, stuff that I was not particularly familiar with going in. It was a good hole for me to fill.

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